In the midst of the city’s third hunker down order of the COVID-19 pandemic, Anchorage residents and businesses are struggling to make ends meet. The city has just $15 million in unallocated CARES Act money to put into relief programs, and officials said they expect that money to run dry by the end of the month.
Since the first city-wide shutdown in March, COVID-19 restrictions in Anchorage have fluctuated. Gathering limitations have gone up and down, some businesses have been required to close, and others ordered to limit service to partial capacity.
Hospitality and entertainment businesses have been hit hardest. With record-breaking case counts threatening to overwhelm Anchorage’s hospitals, the city entered another month-long hunker down this week, closing restaurants to indoor service, and closing entertainment facilities like movie theaters, bingo halls and bowling alleys entirely.
“It’s pretty much devastated a 40-year business,” said Dustin Sherman, the manager at Jewel Lake Bowl in the Sand Lake neighborhood of Anchorage. With three shutdowns so far, the bowling alley has been closed for almost six months this year.
“We’ve had to have the hard discussions on whether or not we’re going to be able to reopen once the shutdown is done. And we’ve had to have that conversation now like three times,” he said. “So far, we’ve been able to do it, but we’re not sure how it’s going to happen this time yet.”
A winter shutdown is particularly devastating because it’s league bowling season. That’s when the business makes most of its money for the year, Sherman said.
Anchorage has about $15 million left to allocate into aid programs like rental and mortgage relief and small business grants. Anchorage Assembly Chair Felix Rivera said while they’ve set up grants specifically for restaurants and hospitality businesses, they haven’t set aside money for the entertainment industry.
“I’d like to see if we can help out some of the industries which feel unfairly targeted by these mandates,” Rivera said. “Movie theaters are down, bingo halls are shut down, bowling centers are shut down, so if we can do something specific to [the entertainment] industry, I think that would be preferable for this round of dollars.”
A proposed assembly resolution would split most of the remaining money between grants for businesses affected by the hunker down and rental and mortgage assistance. A smaller chunk would supplement the city’s new voucher program to help people buy essentials like groceries and gas. The vouchers are one-time gift cards — up to $200 for an individual, $400 for a family.
At this point, the city is scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to relief money. Rivera said he fully expects it to run out by the end of the month.
“I don’t expect any of it to go beyond that,” he said. “That’s why we’ve pushed so hard with our congressional delegation, to see if they can really work with their colleagues to pass another federal stimulus.”
Early on in the pandemic, Sherman said federal unemployment helped to keep him and many employees afloat, but that has tapered off. And he said he was denied assistance through the city’s rental and mortgage relief program.
So far, the bowling alley hasn’t heard back on any of the municipal relief programs either. After applying twice, Sherman said the business received $10,000 through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, but that didn’t even cover two months of payroll.
Jason Bockenstedt, the acting mayor’s chief of staff, said many of the city’s relief programs have been oversubscribed.
“The small business grant programs that we have run, the most recent one that we did, was oversubscribed by about two times. I believe it was [funded at] about $5 million, and the number of applications that we received amounted to a little over $10 million in need,” said Bockenstedt.
Sherman said more federal aid money is always a good thing, but he’s mainly frustrated by the restrictions themselves, which he said feel arbitrary and overdone.
“It’s devastating for a business that’s supported Anchorage for 40 plus years. And Anchorage has kind of turned its back on it … that’s how we feel.”
The Assembly introduced the proposed relief allocations at a special meeting on Friday, with a vote set for next week.